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Cross Country Core Teams: Creating a Team Atmosphere Through Intra-Squad Competition


Brad Peters
Head Cross Country Coach
King High School


There are many challenges to coaching a team in cross country. Perhaps the most difficult of the challenges is to maintain team spirit, unity and purpose. The long, hard miles of a training regimen can quickly undermine the intentions of most young runners, most of whom are more interested in instant gratification rather than long-term success.

Except for those few, talented runners at the top, most of the runners will never win a race, will never see their name or picture in the local newspaper, will never experience "the thrill of victory." The challenge for a coach, then, comes in how to keep those athletes motivated to continue working hard, maintain a positive attitude and contribute to the overall team's success. If they won't win many medals, "what's in it for them?"

To address this situation we developed "Core Teams." The idea is to create a season-long, intra-squad competition that crosses gender and ability levels and keeps the runners focused on the team goals of hard work, positive attitudes, and cooperation.

Here's how it works.

During the first week of school, divide both the boys and girls teams up into smaller "Core Teams" of six runners each. Combining groups of friends or creating teams of the same gender is avoided, so as to force the runners to cooperate with teammates they may not ordinarily work or run with. For the remainder of the season, each of these teams compete for points in a variety of categories. At the awards banquet in December, the top three teams receive awards. The top five individuals receive a framed 11"x14" action photo of themselves taken during the season. The winning team receives a small plaque with their team names on it, plus a large gift certificate for each member to the local mall. It's quite a "carrot."

From there, they're off and running, competing in the various categories, none of which require running talent. The slowest runner on the team can win, for success in the Core Team Competition requires only team and individual effort. Through the four years we've had this working, I have found it is the engine that runs our team. It's really quite exciting to see it work.

When the teams are announced, the runners are required to come up with a team name. We encourage them to create a name that is "running oriented", and they've come through with some very interesting names. In the past we've had "The Kenyans", "Pheidippides Flash", "Runners' High", and "The Cheetahs". After names are chosen, explanation of the categories for competition are given.

The first cateogry, and the one with the most points attached to it, is attendance. Each core team receives 10 points per day if all members are present, 5 if they have one member absent, zero if more than one athlete is missing. The points add up quickly for the teams that are showing up en masse each day. Five points are given to each runner who comes to Saturday practices or invitationals.

Since we have a strong booster club of parents that supports our program, we award 20 points to each athlete whose family joins in membership. Points are also given for athletes who bring their parents to a meet. (Over the years, this has done wonders to increase parental support.)

Our major fund-raiser is a candy sale. Each athlete is required to sell a minimum of two boxes as their obligation and responsibility for being on the team, but then 15 points are given for each box sold after that. A couple of years ago, two of our boys (our top runner who was a senior and an upstart freshman) got into a dual for points and the individual title and sold 17 boxes between the two of them!

Each time an athlete sets a personal record, 10 points are awarded. Bonus points are earned for the team if an entire core team PR's in one race. Points are also earned if an athlete is chosen as the "Runner of the Week."

These point categories work well for our program but, of course, could be adapted to meet your individual needs. Awarding bonus points is also a great way to get runners to do the mundane, everyday tasks of operating the program, or if the runners show extra initiative to help out or encourage other runners.

Every Monday I post the updated point totals for both the individual leaders and for the teams. We have a bulletin board just for cross country and it is quite the gathering place Monday morning as the athletes come to school.

Throughout the season, the competition works to create friendships that may not have existed otherwise, incentive for the slower runners to aim for an award and motivation for everyone to get involved with the team. The returning runners are excited to find out which team they will be a part of this season, and a by-product is you will find leaders in the most unlikely of candidates.

Ultimately, it brings great satisfaction to the coach to award a prize and a plaque to a few runners who may never have seen their picture in the paper, their name in the headlines, or their feet on the victory stand. With the Core Team Competition more of the limelight is spread around. With the challenges of cross country growing every year, this is one way to stem the tides of apathy and disenchantment for a sport than can, and should, be rewarding for all involved.

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